And now we’ll continue our coverage of the Best of Television in 2016 with the Big Kahuna Burger itself, the Best Television Shows of the year. This will be a celebration of the overall greatest artistic achievements, which found an intelligent truth in great filmmaking while still being entertaining as hell, whether as a heart-pumping drama/thriller or as a laugh-out-loud gut-buster. In a year when reality could be depressing and film was reaching a nadir, television has really stepped up as a medium. And I hope to shed a light on the best of the best in the following article.
Before we begin, I want to give some shout outs to the great shows I couldn’t fit onto this list. First, I didn’t have a chance to watch all of Game of Thrones, because I don’t have HBO, but the few episodes I saw were some of the show’s best. I also didn’t get a chance to watch all of Black Mirror, or any of Mr. Robot, so I can’t, in good conscience, put either on this list. South Park was not as sharp as it’s been in the past, and part of that is because of the news cycle they had to work with, but I thought I’d point out it was an impressive effort nonetheless. It’s Always Sunny is coming off of a good, not great season, but I appreciate the fact they can still be this funny eleven years into their run. I also got a great deal of joy watching Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life, even if the show wasn’t an absolute masterpiece. Saturday Night Live has had an incredible run, in no small part because of Mikey Day’s masterful writing/acting. And as always, I tip my hat to ABC’s Must See TV, which has conquered Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and while two shows will be appearing on this list, I will give an Honorable Mention to Speechless, which is both smart and funny.
I would also like to give out an Annual Award for the Most Hate-Watchable Show around. This will be an award for the show that is soooooo bad, and yet you find yourself watching hours upon hours on end. We’ll call this the Law and Order: SVU Award. This year’s SVU Award goes to Fuller House, which dropped two unwatchable seasons, and yet I finished both in less than a day. God, it’s terrible, but something about Jodie Sweetin and Candace Cameron-Buree kept me around for every episode. I hated myself, but sitting back in my bed with my laptop, a bottle of beer, and my rage was so soothing, I’m not going to complain.
And finally, a Special Award. You’ll be seeing O.J.: Made In America on a lot of Best Of lists, and that’s incredibly deserved. The 30 For 30 changed the game, creating a wide tapestry exploring fame, race, misogyny, and more to explain the life of Orenthal James Simpson, a man who was one of America’s biggest heroes turned into our biggest pariah. However, it’s been walking the fine line between television and film all year, and while some people are cheating and putting it on both lists, I’m going to put it on my Best Documentary list and just give it a Special Mention here. Either way, it’s impressive, and you should watch it.
And with that established, let’s look at the list of the Ten Best Television Shows of 2016.
10. The Crown
The Crown is working in overtime to be a British cross between The West Wing and Downton Abbey. It explores the history of Queen Elizabeth, as well as the historical behind-the-scenes drama as she balances her duties as Queen and her double-crossing, opinionated family members. Featuring fantastic performances from Claire Foy, John Lithgow, and Alex Jennings, and featuring a decent performance from Matt Smith (he looks like a young Prince Phillip, but in an unfortunate, kind of inhuman way), the show features brilliant writing to portray what it was like for the young twenty-something of a man who wasn’t even supposed to be King is suddenly thrust to the international stage to make decisions for her country, including decisions about her sister’s love life and dealing with national hero Winston Churchill. The interactions between a sophisticated and intelligent Foy as Elizabeth and the intelligent and fiery Lithgow as Churchill are electric, and it helps make the show one of the most interesting of the year.
Best Episode: “Smoke and Mirrors”-This is the episode that really show what they are capable of. Featuring the behind the scenes drama of Elizabeth’s coronation, it featured the drama of televising the country’s most important event, the manipulation of Edward, Duke of Windsor due to years-old drama, and the times-they-are-a-changing controversy of Phillip not wanting to kneel for his wife, feeling emasculated. The episode features the show’s best writing and directing, and is the show’s most impressive outing to date.
9. The Middle
Despite never being a critical or commercial “success” outright, The Middle has always been one of my favorite shows on television. However, despite being consistently entertaining throughout its run, I was never “wowed” enough to put it on my Top Ten list. But in 2016, something happened: despite breaking up its core dynamic by sending the two eldest children off to school, The Middle has actually come into its own as an artistic achievement. The cast is as sharp as they’ve ever been, featuring great performances from parents Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn (both of whom have turned their performances into the best of their careers), eldest son Charlie McDermott, and especially middle child Eden Sher. The second half of season seven was quite strong, featuring a great episode involving wisdom teeth, Sue’s love life, and Axl’s desperate attempt to find a new home after being kicked out of the house he and his roommates had rented. However, Season 8 is where the season is thriving. Granted, there’s a lot to milk in it, from the money issues the Hecks deal with (especially thanks to their daughter losing financial aid), to their son with potential Asperger’s syndrome starting college, and especially the introduction of oldest child Axl’s finding love with the woman he may one day marry. It’s a realistic arc, especially the fight between Axl and Frankie over his love for her, but it allows for laughs, because new cast member Greer Grammer (daughter of Kelsey Grammer) is such a joy as April. She portrays her with such a loving stupidity (a knack for her, if you watched her on Awkward.) that you can’t help but be fascinated. The show has begun to take on real arcs, and is as funny as its been anywhere else in its run, if not funnier.
Best Episode: “Look Who’s Not Talking”-For the first time in the show’s run, it refused to settle an arc with a friendly little wrap-up. For the first time, the characters had a riff that wasn’t going to be neatly wrapped up in 30 minutes. It made for fascinating television. The fight between Frankie was some of the best television of the year, mainly because it was so real. And it became more hilarious and more painful as Frankie tried to write her email to her son. It was funny watching the tone of the letter change back and forth, but if you’ve ever been a mother or had a real argument with your mother over long distance, you’ll understand how accurate this sequence is. It’s funny, dark, sad, and real, all at the same time, and shows why it has become one of the best shows of the year.
8. Man Seeking Woman
I started watching Man Seeking Woman because for whatever reason, I’m a major fan of Jay Baruchel. And ever since I started watching it, I’ve become one of its most vocal supporters. The show deals with the realities of dating and finding love through surrealist takes. In this past season, that means that when you just don’t click with your partner in the bedroom, they’ll come out as “Non-Josh Sexual,” in a spoof of partners coming out as gay. Or when you’re trying to woo a girl who is dating someone you just can’t compete with, the girl’s boyfriend is literally Jesus, as played by Fred Armisen. It’s sharply satirical, and yet with a real heart. Baruchel plays Josh with the right amount of “schlubby dick” and “lovable loser” that keeps you rooting for him even if you don’t always agree with him, Eric André plays best friend Mike with an over-the-top energy that makes him one of television’s greatest creations, on par with Charlie Day on It’s Always Sunny, and Britt Lower is capable of being the show’s straight man or its most absurd character as sister Liz. Throw in guest performances by Sarah Gadon and a recurring arc by the fantastic Rosa Salazar, and you have one of the funniest shows on TV.
Best Episode: “Cactus”-“Cactus” was one of the strangest episodes on TV last year. Josh tries to woo the newly single Rosa, whom he has developed feelings for. All of the signs are on display, and when an announcement reveals that the world will be destroyed in six minutes, so you should reveal all of your feelings now, Josh decides to go for it. However, Rosa still isn’t interested, and rejects Josh. Angered, Josh goes to the Supreme Court and gets them to pass a “Nice Guy Clause,” meaning that any time a guy is nice to you, you have to pay him back in love and sex. It works out great-until the men start to understand the ramifications of this. It’s a dark, surreal take on the idea of the “nice guy” who plagues Reddit and wears fedoras, and it makes for the perfect analogy of the show’s hilarious absurdity.
The second film from ABC’s Must See TV lineup, black-ish should be ABC’s crown jewel. It’s got so much going for it-the family comedy of Modern Family, the inspirational cast of The Cosby Show (no judgments), and the intelligent debate of All in the Family. Centered on the Johnson family, the show follows father Dre (a fantastic Anthony Anderson) and his attempts to help his children understand what it means to be black in America. This past year has brought heart and comedy to a variety of issues, from stereotyping to the relationship between fathers and sons, the importance of shows like Good Times, religion, and, in their crowning achievement, the African-American community’s relationship with the police. Each episode has brought a balanced view to serious topics, but very rarely gives up on the laughs. Anderson is matched (and perhaps even topped) by the fantastic Tracee Ellis Ross, Laurence Fishburne as his father, Jenifer Lewis as his mother, Deon Cole as the scene-stealing coworker who may be the greatest side character since Jack McBrayer’s Kenneth the Page, and four of the greatest child actors on TV, Yara Shahidi, Miles Brown, and especially Marcus Scribner as the nerdy and “white” Junior and Marsai Martin as demon spawn Diane, who is given the funniest lines of any child actor on TV, to great effect. It’s a heartwarming show, filled with laughs and love, and it hearkens back to the days of Family Ties, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Home Improvement without ever compromising its inherent newness.
Best Episode: “Hope”-I wrote about “Hope” in my article on the best episodes of 2016, but I think it really drives home why this show is good. It offers up several takes that both sides have realized, either due to naiveté or negligence, and shows an honest take over why this issue is so serious. It points out the flaws in the victims of these shootings while never blaming them or portraying them as people deserving to be shot. It focuses on the idea of hope, and how our country can move forward, instead of focusing on the blame or the violence, and it’s an inspirational episode for anyone to enjoy.
6. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
I’d like to think I’m responsible, at least a little bit, for the success of this show. When I started watching on episode three in 2015, it had low ratings, great reviews, no awards buzz, and none of my friends watched it. And now, it has slightly better ratings, still-great reviews, has won a Golden Globe, and many of my friends thank me for introducing them to its greatness. Honestly, I don’t know what you could dislike about this show? Sure, it’s a little hard to get into a show that describes itself as “A girl moves across the country to pursue her taken high-school boyfriend, and also her severe mental issues make her see the world as a musical.” That doesn’t sound great on the surface. But once you start watching, you see one of the funniest comedies on TV, filled with great music and one of the most honest portrayals of depression on TV. It was fantastic in 2015, when the show’s only goal was to show Rachel Bloom’s fantastic Rebecca making bad decisions in her attempt to woo Josh (a wonderfully caring but dopey Vincent Rodriguez III) in between fun musical numbers, it was 2016 where things became artistically brilliant. While most shows would rest on their laurels, Crazy Ex has spent the rest of season one and the beginning of season two consistently flipping the script and changing the formula. Rebecca’s flaws become apparent in the show’s eleventh episode, she woos a man in episode thirteen, a love triangle has choices made by episode sixteen, and season one ends the way most series would end season three or four. And that’s not to mention there’s an entire episode dedicated to upending beliefs among the characters through flashbacks that show how a woman could become this mentally unhealthy. And I haven’t even addressed the fact they wrote off the show’s most popular character three and a half episodes into season two, or how season two has transformed itself into a study of addictions, and turned the “villain” into one of the show’s heroes. But despite all of this, it has never lost its sense of humor or fun, keeping the musical numbers consistently funny, and often very moving. “The Math of Love Triangles” and “Triceratops Ballet” are two of the funniest moments of last year, and “It Was A Sh*t Show,” “After Everything I’ve Done For You,” and “You Stupid B*tch” are three songs that, despite humor, are so beautifully sung by talented people, you forget that these are spoof songs. This show is absolutely brilliant, and if you haven’t started watching it already, you should start now.
Best Episode: “That Text Was Not Meant For Josh!”-Another episode off my Top Ten list, let’s give them a hand for putting out one of the best episodes of 2016 in February. This is one of the show’s darkest episodes, taking the horror of sending a text to the wrong person and amplifying it to a thousand, as depicted by a mentally unwell woman. The hair rock homage to “Textmergencies” would be hilarious and great even if the great Jeff Hiller wasn’t the lead singer, but the checkmate moment comes when Rebecca, having lost both men she cares about, sitting in the broken shards of her back window, unaware that her presence has helped put a couple back together and feeling utterly alone, launches into a Barbra Streisand-esque number dedicated to self-loathing and depression. It’s a haunting song, but also so painfully realistic that you can’t help but laugh. It creates such an empathy for a likable character stuck at her most unlikable, you can’t help but love her. This is such a brilliant achievement on the part of the showrunners, I have to give them a hand.
5. BoJack Horseman
The fact that BoJack Horseman is only number five on this list is a testament to how great 2016 has been for television. Yes, one of my all-time favorite shows and the show I’ve championed since day one had yet another strong season, even if it didn’t quite live up to the magic of season 2. However, by expanding to explore the world of Hollywood and the Oscar season, it allows for even more jokes that dig deeply into things I hold dear: depression, self-worth, the importance of art and filmmaking, and satire. Because the key to this season, unlike the rest, was to keep BoJack “happy” for as long as possible before inherently destroying him, it allowed the show to play with form and genre before building up to the inevitable destruction. The show touched on hot-button issues in a way only it can, and allowed for the fleshing out of one-dimensional characters like Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter. And speaking of Todd, the show took a bold leap in having him come out as asexual at the end of the season, and I’m incredibly excited by that fact. Aaron Paul brings such a heart to that role that it is shocking at times to remember he was once Jesse Pinkman and uttering “b*tch” every other sentence. While we’re on vocal roles, Paul F. Tompkins continues to be an absolute joy on this show, and the casting of Weird Al Yankovic makes his performance even better. But the three really impressive performances come from Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, and Kristen Schaal. All three have created some of film and television’s greatest characters, but the work they are doing here is legendary. They give some of the best performances of the year, and they don’t even have access to their physical capabilities. This is a show that combines everything I love in the world, mixes it together, and serves me a warm beverage once a year, and it hasn’t disappointed me yet.
Best Episode: “Fish Out Of Water”-This is the episode of the year, from any show. Considering BoJack Horseman prides itself on its brilliant dialogue and witty voice actors, the fact that they decided to do a silent episode was always going to be risky. However, between gorgeous animation, a haunting score, and an absolutely perfect sense of direction, the creators of the show created an animated Lost in Translation, creating a sense of isolation and slapstick that no other show could imitate. The factory sequence is on par with the works of Charlie Chaplin, and the sendup to awards season festivals is sharp as ever, helping to create one of the most brilliant episodes of television, perhaps of all time.
Perhaps the greatest new comedy of 2016 was Atlanta, Donald Glover’s passion project. A beautiful combination of semi-autobiography, social commentary, and surrealist humor, the show introduced us to some of the funniest characters on television. Of course I mean the leads, including Glover’s Earn, whose facial expressions are on par with Martin Freeman on Sherlock and The Office, Zazie Beetz as Earn’s put-upon roommate/sometimes girlfriend, and especially Bryan Tyree Henry as Paper Boi (a natural actor) and LaKetih Stanfield as the stoner Darius (who has shown a prowess at drama and comedy alike), but when I refer to the characters, I’m also referring to the whole list of oddballs that have shown up, including a Black Justin Bieber, a black public service channel anchor (and all the ads that went along with that), a lightsaber-weilding valet, blogger Zan, and the rap group Migos. Each figure plays like a perfect surrealist satire, the way that David Lynch treats northwesterners in Twin Peaks. Altogether, it adds up to one of the funniest, most poignant shows about trying to find one’s place in the world, and being black while doing it. Glover has created a bizarre little project that is unlike anything we’ve seen, and I can’t wait to see where it goes, even if I have to wait until 2018 to do so.
Best Episode: “B.A.N.”-Yes, yes, I know I picked “Nobody Beats the Biebs” as one of the best episodes of the year. And I think that is a better episode, furthering the plot and the ideas on display while still being surreal, and handled by the incredibly capable hands of Hiro Murai. But no episode speaks to the heart of what Atlanta is about the way “B.A.N.” does. The episode features Paper Boi appearing on an NPR style TV show to address recent comments he made about Caitlyn Jenner. The episode touches on several serious issues, such as gay panic in the black community, class and race relations, if Jenner should be considered a hero or not, liberal hypocrisy, and so much more. The episode is broken up with surrealist segments involving a “trans-racial” boy who decides that he’s really a 35-year old white man by watching Downton Abbey and calling the cops on his black neighbors that feels like something on Adult Swim, and “stereotypically black” commercials, building up to a take on the old Cookie Crisp commercials that ends with the wolf being beaten for “resisting arrest” by a police officer. The entire episode is bizarre, funny, serious, and ingenious, all at the same time, and Donald Glover deserves all the praise he’s getting for pulling it off.
3. Stranger Things
I’m not sure there was a bigger breakout hit of 2016 than Stranger Things (maybe my #2 pick, but that was a breakout in a different way). Indeed, this show seemed to hit the sweet spot of nostalgia and innovation that people have been clamoring for, balancing adventure with horror, sci-fi with sweetness, in a way few other shows-or even films-have. Best described as a cross between Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, the show plays as an even wider cross between Stand By Me, The Goonies, It, E.T., Alien, Halloween, The Thing, and many more, focusing on three main groups-the nerdy kids caught in a Spielberg movie, the teenagers caught in a slasher/monster movie by John Carpenter, and the adults caught in a King novel. Each of them try to get back a missing boy at all costs, and run afoul with the U.S. government, as well as befriend a sweet eleven year old girl with kick-ass mind powers. Mix into this a sharp eye for tension, a score straight out of the eighties, and some of the best performances on TV, ranging from Winona Ryder and David Harbour to Millie Bobby Brown and Gaten Matarazzo, Stranger Things both elevated the art of television while hearkening us back to the days when pop culture was fun.
Best Episode: “Holly, Jolly”-Man, “Holly, Jolly” is a great episode. It’s the first time we get to full experience Eleven’s mind powers. It features Ryder’s best scenes of the entire series. It features the creepy/fantastically edited opening that jumps between a teen girl being murdered while her best friend loses her virginity (but seriously, though…#justiceforBarb). And it all builds up to one of the greatest scenes of the year: the Christmas lights sequence. I hadn’t even seen the show, and I’d heard about “R-U-N.” It was such a fantastic episode all around, and was truly the moment where most Americans found themselves glued to their television sets, wondering what would happen next.
2. The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Like most people, I was excited for The People V. O.J. Simpson for all the wrong reasons. Created by Ryan Murphy with the men behind Ed Wood and Man on the Moon (two films I love, for the record), the show seemed like a trashy mess meant for hate-watching, like the later seasons of Glee. The set photos didn’t help either, with John Travolta, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and David Schwimmer all looking goofy at best, ridiculous at worst in their 90s clothing. It seemed destined for failure. And then, something magical happened. The show turned out to be good. Actually, not just good. It was great. Every aspect of it played out perfectly, from the early episodes focused on the Bronco chase to the last episode focused on the verdict. But what really shocked people was the study of race, gender, fame, and backroom politics that turned one of the country’s most famous-or infamous-moments into a Shakespearean tragedy. Gooding, Jr. and Travolta were both fine as Simpson and Robert Shapiro, Nathan Lane deserves props for his portrayal of F. Lee Baily (which featured the strangest reenactment on TV, as Lane screams the n-word at the actor playing Mark Fuhrman), and I absolutely loved Schwimmer as the Banquo of the tale, Robert Kardashian (who tries to raise his kids to be upstanding and decent people as he watches the fame dance in their eyes), but this production belonged to three people: Sterling K. Brown, Courtney B. Vance, and especially Sarah Paulson. Vance brings a flair and a heart to the infamous Johnnie Cochran, portraying him as fame-seeking but determined to help the African-American community, while Brown portrays Chris Darden as the most morally sound of all the characters, looking for a sense of justice no matter what his community will think of him for it, and angered by the fact he is being used by both sides as a pawn in a much larger game. However, this is Paulson’s chance to shine, through and through. It’s difficult to play a real person, it’s even more difficult to portray someone this famous for “screwing up” and “being hated,” and it’s damned impossible to play this role as the moral, if flawed, hero. However, Paulson does just that, and ends up doing something twenty years in the making: she finds justice for Marcia Clark, a put-upon woman with the weight of the world on her shoulders who tried to find justice for two brutally murdered individuals despite public outcry against her. Make no mistake, including film, television, and theater, Paulson’s performance is in the top ten greatest performances in any medium. Throw in great writing and electric direction, as well as monstrous ratings, this supposed flop turned out to be one of the greatest artistic achievements of the year.
Best Episode: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”-I’ve gone into lengthy detail already about why this episode is so great. However, I don’t think it can be overstated. Thanks to great acting across the board, this episode follows the effect casual misogyny and the sh*tty media had on Clark as she just tried to do her job. While people were charmed by Cochran and Simpson just saying and doing whatever they wanted and using their natural charisma, Clark’s love for facts and evidence doomed her as she was instead judged on her style, outfit, attitude, and much, much more. A memorable sequence involves Clark going to the drug store for tampons and having the little snot sitting behind the counter saying “Uh, oh. Looks like the defense is in for a rough week.” This is made worse because it comes straight from Clark’s book. Yeah, that happened. Watching Paulson chew through the episode is an absolute delight, and it turns Clark into the one thing she never got to be during the trial: a human being. All this and Nathan Lane shouts the n-word at racists? Checkmate.
1. You’re the Worst
I was as surprised as you are now when, halfway through Season three of You’re the Worst, I realized it was probably topping this list. I mean, I only found this show in late January of last year, what kind of upset is this? Well, I’ll tell you exactly why this is the best show on TV. This is a show that takes all of the aspects I’ve talked about on this list-the gender games, the shows about terrible people, the wholly accurate portrayals of depression, and the overall importance of love-and it mixes them all together into a magical experience. Following two terrible people who met at a wedding and embarked on an affair after connecting and deciding, “If you realize that love is doomed to fail, you can’t get hurt when it eventually does,” the show follows their attempts to deal with their adulthood while never giving up their love of sex and alcohol. They are joined in this mission by two friends, one a spoiled housewife who has gotten so trapped by her husband she stabs him in the side with a pruning knife, and the other a goodhearted Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD. While Season One focuses on how two people so ill-equipped handle love, and Season Two focuses on mental illness (Gretchen, the female protagonist, portrayed deliciously by Aya Cash, is revealed to have depression in season two, and has been dealing with the aftermath of a terrible episode ever since), Season Three feels like everything this show has built finally coming together-the study of love and relationships amongst two people struggling to grow up, as well as an exploration of mental illness (this time in veteran Edgar, who goes off his meds for the series’ most painful arc yet). It also allows multiple episodes to follow the side characters, of which there are many great ones to choose from, especially Vernon, as played to perfection by Todd Robert Anderson, creating a rich and glorious world around our characters. It’s like if Seinfeld had been about watching these characters try to become better despite their many, many flaws, and had mixed in the Ross and Rachel/Monica and Chandler arcs from Friends. It’s one of the darkest, funniest, and smartest shows on TV, and I’m happy that I not only found it last year, but that I managed to place it right where it belongs this year, at the top of the list.
Best Episode: “Twenty-Two”-Not many comedies would dedicate an entire episode to the show’s fourth banana, even if he is played wonderfully by Desmin Borges, the only good-hearted person on the show. Furthermore, there are few comedies that would dedicate an episode to the idea of PTSD amongst veterans. And yet, this is an episode that does both, focusing on Edgar’s quest to find peace in his PTSD. The episode uses its sound to slowly build up the tension in Edgar’s heard, takes sequences of our heroes that we would normally find funny and portrays them in a new and negative light, and ramps up the tension until you honestly can’t tell if the character is going to survive the episode. It’s an emotional gut-punch when it’s revealed the title comes from the number of veterans who kill themselves every day. However, the episode is sharp in its takedown of our current veterans system, and warm in its heart, and perfect in its realism, allowing for one of the best episodes of television all year to perfectly match the greatest television series of the year.
And this wraps up my in-depth look at the best television shows of the year. I hope you’ll enjoy, and I hope 2017 is a prosperous year for television. I’ve already seen three episodes worth considering going forward. Next week we get to move onto movies, and I hope you’ll join me. Happy watching!